Just How Independent was the Gonski Review?

A puzzling aspect of the Gonski review of school funding is its adherence to the Government’s stated policy that no school would lose a dollar of funding as a result of the review and the apparent absence of this instruction from the terms of reference of the inquiry.

Mr. Gonski has stated that his panel “was instructed as part of our terms of reference that no school will lose a dollar on a per student basis on our proposals” ( Australian Financial Review, 24 February 2012). His statement presents a puzzle because this instruction does not appear in the terms of reference published in the Review of School Funding report at Appendix A. This raises the question of whether there was a supplementary terms of reference which has not been published. If so, there is the further question of why it has not been published.

The Gonski review was supposed to be independent, although the composition of the panel led many to doubt just how independent it would be given its bias towards people who had represented private school interests in the past. An independent review is one that follows its terms of reference and is not subject to outside influence over its direction and policy recommendations. One may argue over the actual terms of reference, but whatever it is it should set the scope for a genuinely independent review.

In the absence of any formal supplementary terms of reference that reflects the Government’s policy, it would appear that the Gonski review was subject to outside political interference from the Government. In other words, it appears not to have been an independent review following its terms of reference, but one that did the Government’s bidding.

The Government’s policy is intended to placate wealthy private schools and assure them that their millions in taxpayer funding is not under threat. The recommendations of the Gonski review deliver.

First, while it has recommended a large and much needed boost to the funding of government schools and disadvantaged students, the report also effectively continues the funding maintained (FM) category of private schools. These are schools whose funding exceeds the funding they are entitled to according to their measured socio-economic status (SES). The funding of many private schools will exceed the SES per capita funding rates proposed under the Gonski funding model because the report has adhered to the Government’s policy that no school shall lose a dollar of funding.

Second, the report proposes that public funding for high fee elite private schools should continue. This is despite strong arguments presented in submissions to the review that this is a form of upper class welfare and that this funding would be more effectively and efficiently used to fund disadvantaged students and schools.

An interesting question is what the review would have recommended if it had chosen to remain independent. Would it have recommended that the funding of FM schools be reduced? Would it have recommended that high fee elite private schools have their taxpayer funding reduced?

The logical process would have been to provide two clear options – one that presented the panel’s preferred option to deliver on its formal terms of reference and one that met the Government’s policy. Would there have been any difference? Perhaps, Mr. Gonski could clarify.

Trevor Cobbold

Update: This article was revised on 26 February 2012.

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